Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's irrational, man...

I recently finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ latest book God is Not Great and afterwards felt the impulse to jump on YouTube and watch a few videos of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins verbally sparring with various theists (mostly from the Fox News Channel, oddly enough). Interestingly, during almost every one of these exchanges, the theistic commentator would fall back on what Hitchens refers to in his book as the “last ditch case against secularism”, this being the tired old argument that the worst atrocities in history were committed by atheists. Typically we hear Hitler’s name thrown about (though his own writings seem betray at least some religious convictions), as well as Pol Pot, Mao Ze Dong, and Stalin, etc.

While Dawkins, Hitchens, and many others of sharper wit than myself have exsanguinated this sad bit of rhetoric time and time again, I would like to my own stab at this rather poor argument. This issue at hand, I propose (understanding that many have proposed it before me), is not theism vs. atheism per se, but rationalism vs. irrationalism. Already I can hear the theists stomp and protest at being called irrational, whilst the title of rationality is so smugly reserved for the atheists. I hasten to dispel this notion, for, as we seen in the list of infamous names above, atheism and rationalism do not always go hand in hand. Rather, when we examine the great slaughters and atrocities in our history, be they in the torture halls of the Inquisition, the gas chambers of Auschwitz, or in the icy hell of a Siberian gulag, what we see at their foundation is pure and simple irrationality. Be it the arrogance of a Pope, Hitler’s fearsome convictions about racial superiority, or Stalin’s terrible conviction that the preservation of “the revolution” was worth any human cost, all of these motives come down to some weird notion of unquestionable supremacy.

The word “unquestionable” is the root of the issue. Be it a god, a “cultural legacy”, or even an economic philosophy, all of these notions make the claim that they reveal some immutable truth about the world, something that cannot denied or discussed or dissented from, something that just is. This is irrationality at its most pugnacious. Some secular philosophies and individuals make such claims. Almost all religions do.

The reason that religion is facing rather more than the typical scrutiny lately is precisely the same reason that, for example, James Randi works so hard to expose the frauds of Sylvia Browne: Right now religion is the biggest dog in the yard. The metaphorical battle to stop fraudulent mediums is not best fought by haranguing the fortune teller on the corner but by revealing the bunglings and squawking failures of the industry’s flagship personality. Likewise, the conflict of rationalism and science against irrationalism is not going to be won (merely) by explaining why this week’s perpetual motion machine doesn’t work or why Immanuel Velikovksy had his head up his ass. Right now the most powerful irrational force on earth, the one making the broadest claims about its own authority and the one shrieking with the loudest voice that its rightful place in the world is being denied, is religion.

Likewise, in the United States, the biggest dog in the religious yard is Christianity. There’s little need for long-winded refutations of, say, the Wiccan theory of universal origins because there’s not a well-funded, well-organized political machine trying to get it taught in schools. Guys that worship Thor aren’t making decisions about funding stem cell research. The antiscientific creationism “museum” that recently opened its doors here in Kentucky is making (laughable) claims about the world that are based on the Bible, not the Necronomicon. The inscription on our money doesn’t read “In Crom We Trust”.

There’s a hierarchy of issues at stake. Right now it is probably more important to the fate of humanity to show that religion is not beyond reproach than it is debate whether or not a cat can predict when people are going to die, but rooting out irrationality is at the heart of both issues. Should a violent, deleterious, irrational secular movement suddenly emerge, the rational voices of the world would turn their attention to it. Until then, there are other matters to attend to.

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